They say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but sometimes when everything is going fine, we feel inclined to fiddle with the controls. This is the temptation that Jose Mourinho fell for. Manchester United had enjoyed tremendous success in the first seven league matches of the season and had looked unbeatable. Yes, they had not played a top-six rival from the last season yet, but they had crushed whatever the opposition had offered by way of defence.
Then came Mourinho’s must-not-lose game against Liverpool at Anfield. He approached this game in the same way he did the previous two encounters with Manchester United’s fierce rivals – with extreme caution. He parked the bus at Anfield and got his desired outcome – a 0-0 draw. Then at Benfica as well, his side appeared to be less attacking than their earlier matches in the season. Again, the game would have ended at 0-0 but for a 63rd minute Rashford goal.
Mourinho took a Manchester United side that had been excellent in attack as well as defence and for two matches asked them to be more defensive. I feel that this change of tactics applied brakes on Manchester United’s attacking momentum and put their players in two minds, especially in the following game – which was at Huddersfield. David Wagner’s Huddersfield is a tricky one and generally play a high-pace pressing game, which is quite unlike many other smaller teams in the Premier League.
They are not content with a defensive approach and waiting for attacking opportunities. They press and create those opportunities themselves – very much like Liverpool (when they are playing well). Thus, it would be natural for Manchester United players to feel if they should attack like they had been doing against smaller teams, or should they give Huddersfield the same treatment they gave to Liverpool.
I feel that this confusion played a significant role in Manchester United’s eventual loss on Saturday. Let me tell you why.
Manchester United Did Not Shoot As Much As They Generally Do
The Red Devils are not as prolific shooters as some of the other teams in the league, but you cannot post a string of four-goal victories without shooting a lot. So far, this season they have shot 136 times in nine matches. Thus, their average amounts to about 15 shots per game. But against Huddersfield on Saturday, Manchester United shot only nine times. Perhaps Huddersfield’s pressing did not allow United to create as many scoring chances as they were accustomed to. But to me, when I was watching this game for a brief period on Saturday, it felt that United were still trying to stay deep and defend while Lukaku roamed the opponent’s penalty box. This positioning was very similar to the Liverpool game, but it was not required against Huddersfield.
Low Quality of Shots
Not only did Manchester United not shoot as frequently as they generally do, but their shot quality was also much poorer compared to their efforts in the earlier games. Overall, this season, United have taken 102 shots from open play, with an expected goals value of 13.6. Thus, every open play shot United has taken this season has had a 13% chance of converting into a goal. But against Huddersfield, those 9 had just a 9% chance each of converting into a goal. It is possible that in an attempt to stay solid defensively, United did not commit enough players forward, and they could not create better scoring opportunities for themselves.
Low Chance Creation
How do we know that they did not create enough scoring opportunities for themselves? Well, Manchester United made five key passes in Saturday’s game, while their overall average in the league this season is 10.9 key passes per game and this number includes Saturday’s low number. Thus, we can definitely say that the number of chances created by Manchester United decreased by more than 50% on Saturday.
It is possible that as a team Manchester United just went off the boil for a game on Saturday. But it is also possible that the change of tactics in the previous two games had put them in two minds against Huddersfield – to attack against a minnow or to defend against a high-pressing and attacking team? Whatever be the reason for Saturday’s performance, Jose Mourinho would want to send his team out with clearer heads in the next League match as it is against Tottenham, who can really hurt them if Manchester United waver a bit.